Abstract art

art with a degree of independence from visual references in the world

Abstract art is modern art which does not represent images of our everyday world. It has colour, lines and shapes (form), but they are not intended to represent objects or living things. Often the artists were influenced by ideas and philosophies of abstraction.[1]

Kazimir Malevich, 1915.
Fugue, Kandinsky 1914
Xdx, by Manierre Dawson. Brooklyn Museum dates it as about 1910.

Abstract art is found in painting and in sculpture. There are also many works of art which are partly abstract, and partly representational. Many artists worked in abstract and other types of modern art.

Purely abstract art is a 20th-century invention. It grew out of the earlier forms of modern art, but it is perhaps the one movement which is absolutely modern. It has no roots in earlier art (as we use the term today).[2]

Early years


One of the first to achieve complete abstract paintings was Kazimir Malevich, who presented a completely black square in 1913. He was a Suprematist, an art movement based on simple geometrical shapes. Art based on geometry is a kind of geometric abstraction. Wassily Kandinsky painted a famous work Composition VII in 1913, which was completely abstract and very complex.

The case of Manierre Dawson, an American from Chicago, is very interesting.[3] During a tour of Europe in 1910, he started painting true abstract works. Back in the United States, he became convinced that he could not earn a living at art, and became a farmer. He was forgotten until a rediscovery in 1963. He may have been the first person to paint a completely abstract work.

There are many hundreds of other artists who painted abstracts. Piet Mondrian and the sculptor Henry Moore deserve mention for their wide influence on other artists.

Abstract expressionism


After World War II, abstract art became a dominant form of art in the United States, with some outstanding exponents. Immigrants such as Mondrian, Max Ernst and Mark Rothko, and native-born Americans such as Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock became almost household names.

Abstract expressionism is the name given to the American post-World War II art movement.[4] It was the first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence and put New York City at the center of the western art world, a role formerly filled by Paris. The term was used in 1919, but is more widely used for American work of the 1940s to 1960s. Of the previous generation of painters, Kandinsky is most clearly an abstract expressionist.

Technically, an important predecessor was surrealism, with its Freudian emphasis on dreams, and on spontaneous, automatic or unconscious creation. Jackson Pollock's dripping paint onto a canvas laid on the floor is a method of using spontaneity. It was novel, and brought into play several factors. Action: movements, how the artist worked. Automatism and the unconscious: the work was planned, but details were not.

"At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event". Harold Rosenberg [5]

Abstract expressionist paintings share certain characteristics. The artists use large canvases, sometimes very large. There is an "all-over" approach: the whole canvas is treated with equal importance, as opposed to the center being of more interest than the edges. The canvas as the arena became a credo of Action painting, while the integrity of the picture plane became a credo of the Color field painters.

Five things to know


According to the Royal Academy, there are five things we should know about abstract expressionism:[6]

  1. "It was the product of an extraordinary time": a common experience of artists living in 1940s New York
  2. "It took scale to new levels": the artworks were very large.
  3. "It made the viewer part of the art". This one is not everyone's experience.
  4. "It resisted traditional confines". For example, an all-over composition instead of a central focal point.
  5. "Its artists were close but independent". Each had their own unique style.

Action painting


Paintings such as those of Jackson Pollock which express the actions and movements of the painter.

Colour field painting


Paintings mainly of coloured shapes of a geometric or bulbous kind. Examples: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Josef Albers, Kenneth Noland.



  1. Gooding, Mel 2000. Abstract art. Tate Publishing, London. ISBN 1854373021
  2. Just possibly some prehistoric art might be counted. Islamic decorative tiles in early mosques might be a candidate.
  3. Bates, Geoffrey, 2006. Manierre Dawson: an artist out of bounds. The Living Museum, 68(1): 8-13
  4. Anfam, David. 1990. Abstract Expressionism. New York & London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20243-5
  5. Hess, Barbara 2005. Abstract Expressionism. Taschen, back cover
  6. Abstract expressionism. The Royal Academy